It’s been 28 years since the start of ABC’s “NYPD Blue,” 22 years since the premiere of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and 13 years since the launch of AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” And if the ratings guides and critical buzz for current shows have taught us anything, it’s that people still love an antihero story. But they are also pleased that the genre has evolved beyond stories of white men doing bad things.
Miranda Kwok, who developed “The Cleaning Lady” based on an Argentine format, thought she’d be pitching her dramatic tale about a Cambodian doctor-turned-American-hotel employee pulled into a moral gray area to cable and streaming networks. Instead, her partners at Warner Bros. Television said, “Let’s shoot for broadcast,” she recalls, because there was White men behaving badly aren’t the only ones getting the morally complex series treatment B I Z + BU Z Z “definitely a greater appetite and desire for more diverse voices and perspectives.” The show was ultimately sold to Fox.
Like “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the titular character in “The Cleaning Lady,” Thony De La Rosa (played by Élodie Yung) has medical concerns that lead to her questionable choices. (Her child needs a bone marrow transplant and they’re in the U.S. illegally as they hope for a donor.) But her involvement in the criminal underworld is not premeditated, Kwok says. And while Walter “eventually embraced his descent into darkness,” Kwok says she wants her heroine to be “constantly battling her own moral center.”
“The Cleaning Lady” is just one of many recent and upcoming programs challenging the more commonly known antihero tropes. NBC’s “Good Girls,” the dramedy about small-time criminals who want to stick it to the patriarchy, created a cult following during its four-season run. That same network is also working with Renée Zellweger and Jessika Borsiczky on the true crime limited series “The Thing About Pam.” David E. Kelley and Lesli Linka Glatter are working with HBO Max on “Love and Death,” which stars Elizabeth Olsen and Lily Rabe and is based on a Texas housewife’s 1980 sensational murder of her church friend. AMC’s buzzy summer show, “Kevin Can F**k Himself,” mocks the multicam sitcom tropes by following another wife (Annie Murphy’s Allison) off the brightly lit soundstage as she decides she wants to kill her manipulative husband (Eric Petersen’s titular Kevin).
“I had the real luxury of walking into a room with four women executives. And I think that made all the difference. Because they all understood where she was coming from,” “Kevin” creator Valerie Armstrong says of developing and selling the show.
Allison is relatable and someone audiences might want to root for, Armstrong says, because she’s “someone who considers their anger a flaw and something that she has to hide and keep to herself and not put in that sitcom room with her husband.”
“Kevin” is a rare example of a series that features two antiheroes, one in each world of the show. In order to deconstruct sitcom tropes, the show explores them greatly, devoting multiple scenes per episode to moments shot in that format and therefore centering Kevin in the narrative. The other side of the story, shot in single-camera style with gritty lighting and a less cheery wardrobe, is Allison’s. Both characters exhibit bad behaviors, albeit to different degrees. But as the show spends more time getting to the nuance of Allison, slowly the view of the characters shift. What a traditional sitcom has taught us to be the humorous behavior of a dopey man-child who has his wife to clean up after him may be enough to justify homicide when it’s told through Allison’s lens.
“I think of Kevin as an American historical figure,” Armstrong says. “We’re telling a story about a problem and that’s a white guy. The guy who gets to walk around without any benefit of the doubt? That’s a white guy.”
Antihero series have heavily featured probing these white male characters’ pasts, ailments, complicated family situations and tortured psyches to understand why they are the way they are. Historically this would have meant Kevin, rather than Allison, would get such treatment. It’s not a completely bygone way of storytelling. Showtime’s “Dexter,” which centers around a serial killer who kills other serial killers, is getting a limited continuation series that drops in November. In July, Peacock premiered “Dr. Death,” about former surgeon Christopher Duntsch, who was convicted of maiming a patient and accused of injuring more than 30 others.
“It would be very easy to toss a black hat on him and call him a psychopath because it makes us feel better. It gives us the answers as to how something like this could possibly exist,” says Patrick Macmanus, “Dr. Death” showrunner. But instead, “we needed to build a character in Duntsch that audiences would have, I hope, complex feelings about themselves. Because throughout the unraveling of the story, I think there are going to be moments where audiences feel for the character of Duntsch and then catch themselves feeling for him.”
The very casting of lead Joshua Jackson, who took over the part from Jamie Dornan after the COVID shutdown shifted production schedules, is something that Macmanus says helps seal this idea.
“It’s a little bit of a casting coup, to be able to get a guy that everyone was in love with for 30 years,” Macmanus says of the always affable former teen heartthrob. But “that’s what these patients were dealing with: they were facing down this charming doctor who was telling them everything that they wanted to hear — only to then be lowered into this spider’s web.”
Admittedly, in this story, the web wasn’t just caused by one man, but rather a systemic issue in the U.S. medical system that allowed Duntsch to continue working despite red flags in his background and complaints from fellow doctors.
Still, there is also the question of whether we should be centering shows on criminals at all in our current culture. This is an especially hot topic for true crime stories, where real people and their loved ones suffered. Commonly discussed around how real-life news is covered, placing an increased importance on centering on the survivors’ stories instead, it’s a conversation scripted storytellers should partake in, too.
Macmanus believes that how each show handles this is “entirely story dependent.” In the case of “Dr. Death,” he began the show on one of Duntsch’s unfortunate patients and made sure others “were always present not simply as victims but as partners to our protagonists as they set out to put a stop to Duntsch’s reign of terror.”
It’s a delicate balance for such projects to “shed some light on people who are struggling and evoke some empathy for them,” as Kwok says she wants “The Cleaning Lady” to do. Because while you don’t always have to root for the (anti) hero of the story, you have to take careful note of whose story gets to be told at all.
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